A famous, millennial favourite, Victoria’s Secret model: check.
Casting that covers every diversity: check.
A massive global media budget: check.
A brand ambition to tap into the cultural zeitgeist: check.
What could possibly go wrong?
Within 24 hours the latest big budget brand ad from Pepsi had been pulled from YouTube and mocked to an early death by the internet. It wasn’t just the advertising world asking ‘how could this happen?’.
Reality TV star Kendall Jenner leaves a photo shoot to join a heavily policed demonstration, defusing the tension by walking to a police line and handing an officer a can of Pepsi, prompting cheers. The comparisons with social activism like the Black Lives Matter movement were too much to bare and brands were quick to see how quickly things can spiral when marketing fails to demonstrate any common sense.
The root of the problem was an ill-judged attempt by the fizzy drinks maker “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”. The rueful statement in the wake of the fiasco went on: “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issues. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.”
The mocking was equal to the outrage that greeted the advert. Jimmy Kimmel commented “The fact that this somehow made it through — I can’t imagine how many meetings, and edits, and pitches, and then got the thumbs-up from who knows how many people is absolutely mind-boggling.” Once it became known that the ad was an in-house creation, ad agencies breathed a sigh of relief in what will surely strengthen their position of expertise.
Mike Middleton, head of creative at Dentsu Mobius Media said “Clients are often keen to try and cut out agencies because we’re ‘more expensive.’ But agencies are paid to give wise counsel, and this sort of thing would have been flagged.”
There are four rules of engagement for advertisers to follow to avoid making the same mistakes:
1. Share your brand values: don’t try selling stuff off the back of someone else’s values
2. Understand your audience, completely, and know that they have their own minds
3. Choose your spokesperson wisely, the alliance has to feel genuine
4. If it all hits the fan, either apologise quickly and candidly, or don’t and stick to your guns
The upswing of all of this – apart from uniting the internet – is that the PR storm far exceeded anything a less controversial ad could have mustered. Newsrooms and water coolers were all a buzz with comment, with Pepsi featuring in thousands of memes. It was coverage that money can’t buy, or perhaps it did?